As a psychotherapist for teens in urban San Francisco, one of the complaints I hear uttered most often is about stress. Teens report being “stressed” nearly every day. Chalk it up to an increasingly demanding and time-pressed society or to the fact that stress is the new catch-all phrase for youth today. In fact, stress seems to have provided a way to identify feelings of anger or depression in a way that bypasses the typical stigma attached to such language. Whatever the cause may be, the fact is that our teens are experiencing stress in their lives in similar ways as adults.
Stress is as common for adolescents as it is for adults. The difference, however, is that an adolescent’s body and mind are still developing and adolescents typically are not as skilled in coping with stress as adults. They are more easily overwhelmed and less likely to communicate that they need help. Some are even calling stress a silent epidemic among today’s youth, leading not only to poor academic performance and low self-esteem, but also more increased risk-taking behaviors and even suicide. Stress is also a main contributer to teen drug abuse and violence. The good news is that stress, like asthma or diabetes, can be managed. By focusing our these simple strategies, you can avoid chronic stress and increase your own quality of life. Now more than ever, tt is crucial that parents and mentors alike are able to communicate with their teens about stress and how to manage it.
Here are 5 simple steps to communicating with teens about stress:
1. Define it. Stress can be defined as emotional or physical, often inhabiting both realms. For some, stress may be a feeling and for others it can be easily localized in the body. Headaches, grinding of the teeth, picking at the skin or stomach pains can indicate high stress levels in the body. A great excercise can be to draw a picture of a human body and draw in the places where your stress lives. Have your teen do the same. Compare and Contrast. Have your teen describe a “stressful situation” in the past week and inquire about how they knew it was stressful. Was it bodily or emotional? Create a list of common stressors that seem to impact the day-to-day in your teen’s life. What are these stressors? Are they tied to a particular realm of your teen’s life such as school or sports?
2. Recognize physical and emotional signs of stress.
How does stress affect the human body? Stress often manifests in the body, throwing it out of balance. For example, stress can often provoke a “flight, fight or freeze” response. For some teens, this response can feel exhilarating and is often described by teens as “pumped up” or “juiced”. Suddenly one can experience a burst of energy as the body mobilizes to face danger. Digestion may be inhibited as may be perception of pain. For others, this may cause them to freeze or be “numbed out”. It may overwhelm their capacity to cope and they may shut down. If a teen feels overwhelmed and trapped by this feeling, it can often lead to running away or cutting school. These are flight responses. It is important to identify these common reactions as they can almost feel automatic. Identifying these signs of stress can break that cycle of automatic response and offer a clearing in which your teen can make new, more effective choices.
3. Managing Stress with Healthy Coping Skills:
What are typical ‘red flags’ that you may be stressed? Asking this question usually leads to a dialogue about how your teen copes in unhealthy ways. Some examples and answers to this question that I have heard from teens are:
” I overeat when I’m stressed”
“I just say forget it and don’t go to school, walk around, smoke, and zone out”
“I sleep more”
“I eat junk food”
These ‘red flags’ can also be defined as unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress. In the moment, stress may be relieved but we cannot mistake avoidance for coping. In the long run, these coping mechanisms lead only to more stress. Once these behaviors are identified, they will be easier to change into healthier coping behaviors.
4 Defining and Practicing New Coping Skills
Part of growing up is learning how to take of oneself. This is an appealing conversation to have your teen as they generally see themselves as “grown” or being able to take care of themselves. This is one area where a power struggle or debate about how grown they are can be avoided. Encourage them to better take care of themselves by linking it to maturity and adulthood. How do they soothe themselves in times of stress or when overwhelmed? How do they prioritize and “get it done” when stress is high? How do they resist the more “immature” flight, fight and freeze responses and make adult choices? These are important questions that can shape and encourage healthy adult development in your teen. Healthy coping techniques are easy to define, but harder to execute when the heat is on. We all know excercise makes us feel better, but how often do we really do it when we most need to? Excercise releases tension and actually energizes us. The biggest obstacle to changing behavior is often our mind. Help your teen create his or her inner Yoda in times of stress. What would Yoda do in this situation? What advice would he give you? Metaphors go far in the mind of a teen and can be extremely useful in guiding them away from peer influences.
What are other examples of healthy responses to stress? Playing music, expressive arts, dance, self-defense courses, running, taking time out, 10 deep breaths, a long bath, a good book. These are all ways to beat stress and win back our quality of life.
“The obstacle is the path”–Old Zen saying
Perhaps managing stress is provoking us into better, more fuller lives.